Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul
Since 1980, the growth of Korean Christianity has been driven by Catholics rather than Protestants. Why?
The growth of Korean Christianity is one of those facts that is used to give succour to members of declining western church. Like many churches in Asia its expansion has been explosive. In 1900 1% of Koreans were Christian, today 29% are. And we all know who these new Christians are right? Evangelical protestants often worshiping in megachurches. When foreign journalists – and indeed foreign bloggers – want to write about Korean Christianity they usually go to Yoido Free Gospel Church in Seoul, which purportedly has the world’s largest congregation.
This protestant-centric story is not inaccurate but it is out of date. Pew Research notes that:
Since the 1980s, however, the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5. Catholics have grown as a share of the population, from 5% in 1985 to 11% as of 2005, according to the South Korean census. The growth of Catholics has occurred across all age groups, among men and women and across all education levels.
So if you look at a snapshot of Korean Christianity in the present, it’s fair to note that Protestants comfortably outnumber Catholics. If, however, you are interested in its expansion, it is Catholics you need to consider because for thirty years now they are the ones who’ve been doing the growing.
Part of the reasons may be political. Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor based in Seoul, wrote that:
…in the 1960s when Catholicism came to be associated with the ideas of progressive change and the introduction of modern political ideologies. In the 1960s, South Korea’s Catholic church hierarchy began to drift leftward. This was a time when South Korea was run by a military dictatorship – remarkably efficient at managing the economy but also quite ruthless and brutal in dealing with political dissent and the country’s labour movement. The Catholic Church firmly positioned itself on the side of the pro-democracy resistance. A special role was played by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who in 1968 became the archbishop of Seoul.
Under the leadership of Cardinal Kim, the Catholic church took a remarkably active leadership role, always ready to criticise the government and its perceived brutal use of force against government opponents. Outraged, the KCIA, the South Korean political police, arrested Bishop Daniel Chi Hak-sun, one of Cardinal Kim’s lieutenants and an outspoken critic of the military rule, but had to release him soon, bowing to pressure from local Catholics groups and from overseas.
When military rule finally came to an end in 1987 and Korea at long last became a democracy, the Catholic church was widely credited for its role in this seismic change. Needless to say, such perceptions significantly boosted its popularity: Church leaders were seen as relevant, dedicated and ready to risk their life and freedom for a great cause. Indeed, while Catholic churches across the globe face increasing difficulties and dwindling numbers of believers, the Korean church is thriving. In the mid-1990s the Catholics constituted merely 6 percent of the total population, but in twenty years the number nearly doubled, reaching 10 percent.
On the other hand a New York Times report on Pope Francis visiting Korea, suggested culture and the travails of the protestant churches also play a role:
While the Catholic Church has been flexible in embracing Koreans’ centuries-old Confucian-based rituals of worshiping ancestors, a widely cited survey by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea last year found Koreans complaining about Protestant churches’ “exclusive attitude toward other faiths.” A leading Protestant preacher in recent years outraged people by declaring from the pulpit: “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus.”
People have also watched some of South Korea’s Protestant megachurches — among the largest in the world — degenerating into internal squabbling as pastors attempted to bequeath their churches to their sons, triggering factional strife.
I don’t yet know enough to say whether some all, some or none of these explanations are right. But I’m curious to investigate. There can be few other major denominations in rich countries that have doubled in size recently.